The Do’s And Don’ts Of Running Tryouts

Tiina Booth explores how to start your season right with a smart, efficient tryout process.

The MLU's Boston Whitecaps 2014 combine.

Most college and high school teams will be facing the tryout process in the next few weeks. Some of these tryouts will look like an NFL combine; some will be looser and more subjective. Some players will know exactly what will be expected of them if they make the team; some will be asking, “What am I supposed to be doing?” and “What is this team all about?”

In order to avoid many of the frustrations that plague players and leaders during this time, I offer this list of Do’s and Don’ts to designing and implementing a tryout for an ultimate team. Please feel free to skip those which you know do not apply to your program.  But before you quickly dismiss some of these suggestions, spend some time in discussion with your team and answer the question, “What does this team want to accomplish, both on and off the field, in the 2014-15 season?”

The Do’s

 
1. Define your team for this year. 

I know I sound like a broken record when I say have a team meeting, but meetings are important and can be effective if they are run well. If there is a possibility that you will cut returners, then do not invite them to the meeting.  The leadership can decide the basics of what kind of team they want:  social, competitive, really social, really competitive-you get the idea. If you do not know what you are working toward, you will not know how to design your tryouts.

2.  Envision the new team. 

Players and coaches and captains often get stuck in the past and the only vision they carry with them is of the team from last season.  This year’s players may still be socially connected to the alums and may even be playing club with them. As we know, breaking up is hard to do. There is no need to break up a friendship, but if you allow your alums to define your team, or if you still seek approval from them, then you will not be able to move forward. If part of developing mental toughness is staying in the moment (and it is), then leave the past behind and focus on the immediate challenges of building a new team.

Must Haves At Tryouts3. Decide what you are looking for in new players.

Some of this is obvious. If you graduated your main handlers, you will be looking for replacements with disc skills. If you lost your best receiver, you may want to find a tall and fast athlete who can be taught to read, catch and throw. College coaches, do not become solely enamored with a player with high school experience. There is much to be said for finding a raw recruit and building them into the player that you need.

I also suggest looking at players who may not immediately seem that impressive. I once took a senior on varsity with no ultimate experience.  He was the varsity soccer goalie, however, and at tryouts I watched him stop his cut so someone else could easily score. He never really learned to throw, but that unselfishness and field sense served us well all season. Be wary of those who are flashy and self-absorbed.

4. Choose a tryout committee. 

Even when I was the only coach of ARHS boys, I always had a group of others who gave me excellent feedback after tryouts. I made the final decision, of course, but I almost always took their advice.  If you are the only coach or captain, you cannot see everything. Rely on others, and make sure they know exactly what you are looking for before tryouts begin.

5. Design tryouts that align with your team vision.

For those of you who have a no-cut policy, you obviously will not have tryouts. However, you can still start the season by setting expectations.  Just because everyone is invited to play, it doesn’t mean  a player can disrespect the team by arriving late or skipping tournaments or being generally irresponsible. For those of you who will have to make cuts, your committee should put together a tally sheet for each evaluator to use.  I like to have some skills testing (shuttle run, triple jump, verticality test) that produces actual data. Then you can use some holistic scoring when it comes to throwing, catching, field sense, athleticism and other difficult-to-quantify characteristics.

I use a 1-6 scoring system, with 6 representing the best.  No need to use a scale of 10 and if you use an odd number, most evaluators will settle for the middle choice, which is not that helpful. Finally, include “coachability” and “potential” as two of your categories. These, of course, are impossible to quantify, but careful observation should give you a good sense of both.

6. Make your tryouts feel like a real practice.

While concrete numbers for each player are important, you still need to see them play.  I suggest games of 4 v 4 or 5 v 5. No one can hide in these games of mini and you will most easily be able to see how someone moves and reacts. Make sure you encourage the new players to ask questions at any time. During a larger scrimmage, make sure you pay attention to what players are doing when they are not on the field.  Are they engaged with the action? Are they helpful? Are they gossiping? Are they bored? As Maya Angelou says, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” If a player cannot pull it together to be a good teammate at tryouts, it will only get worse once he/she is on the team.  Believe Maya and believe me.

7. Be organized, be clear, and be kind.

Once you have made your final cuts, let people know privately if they made the team or not. If you are a high school coach, your school most likely has a clearly defined protocol for announcing the team. Make sure you know it and follow it. If you do not complete your cuts until after the fall season, everyone needs to know what the options are. Some players may be asked to stay on as practice players. Some may be placed on the B  or JV team. Those who are injured may have a spot kept open for them. Whatever you decide to do, make sure your plans are clearly articulated through the entire tryout process. These plans may have to change but starting with a strong framework will make any emergencies easier to handle.

The Don’ts

 
1. Don’t have different standards for returners.

I have yet to observe a tryout process in any sport which does not have ‘The Clump’ somewhere on its sidelines. This is the group of returning players who feel they have earned the license to not pay attention to anything that is going on.  They are magnetized to each other. They are bored with drilling. They would rather talk to the other returners about their summer or their plans for the weekend. They make little effort to be welcoming to the new players. They would prefer to whisper about who will make the team. They try to look over the captain’s shoulder at the clipboard so they can see how everyone else is doing.

The Clump does not want things to change. They put in their time last season and they expect an elevated role on this year’s team.  It is your job to remind them that they still need to work hard for the team. The past is in the past. One way to break up the Clump is to give them minor leadership roles during tryouts.  They will not be evaluating but they can certainly take a lead in warm-ups or demonstrate some drills. You may have to ask them to physically move away from each other but, again, this is setting the tone for the season about what kind of behavior is expected at practice.

2. Don’t make excuses for good players with bad behavior.

If you start making excuses for a player’s behavior at tryouts because you believe they are talented, you are boarding the train to Doomsville, a place where players are exceedingly unhappy and teams go to die. Your team has arrived in Doomsville if it has broken into different cliques, with the one around the captains being the most fun and the most resented. Players on the outside feel marginalized and quit. Some others may behave as though they want to quit, by nursing fake injuries or ignoring emails or checking out in different ways. Be willing to cut the best player with the worst attitude, whether new or returning.  It will be painful at first, but you will never regret it.

3. Don’t tell anyone they made the team before the final decisions have been made.

This is my single greatest pet peeve about ultimate tryouts and I have heard story after story about this happening at all levels of play. A coach or captain insinuates (or sometimes says outright) that a player has made the team early in the tryout process. The player knows this is wrong and shares it with others, even if they are told not to.  The leadership of the team then looks weak and unprofessional, before practices have even started. I understand that being a peer judging another peer is uncomfortable. But step up and deal with it.  This is the downside of being a captain and it goes with the territory. If you have to be that jerk with the clipboard during tryouts, then embrace it and take the heat from your friends afterwards.

4. Don’t be all professional or all personal.

This concept has been the most helpful in my teaching and coaching career. If you are a leader on a team, be a professional leader.  Make decisions based on fairness, integrity and the big picture. Do your best to represent yourself and your team as well as you can, particularly when playing in public or dealing with your school. Yet when you are away from the spotlight, allow yourself the freedom to enjoy being part of a team as anyone would. It may seem weird to have two different personas as a member of an ultimate program, or a school community, but this has been the easiest and clearest way for me to navigate these waters.

***

The beginning of the season starts with tryouts, not when the team is finally chosen. Set the tone now in every interaction you have with a potential teammate.  Concentrate on the vision you have of the team and work toward that vision in every decision you make. If you are having problems in January with players acting irresponsibly, it most likely will be because of the mistakes you make in September.

  1. Tiina Booth
    Tiina Booth

    Tiina Booth is the director of the National Ultimate Training Camp and a co-coach of the University of Massachusetts men. She founded the Amherst Invitational in 1992 and co-founded Junior Nationals in 1998. In 2006, she published a book about ultimate with Michael Baccarini, entitled Essential Ultimate. She has coached teams to numerous national and international titles. Her ongoing passion is sports psychology, and she offers clinics to coaches of ultimate and other sports. Tiina will be inducted into the Ultimate Hall of Fame at USAU Club Nationals in October of 2018.

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